WASHINGTON—As U.S. President Joe Biden took the podium before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night to deliver his first official state of the union address, many of those listening had spent the day watching footage of Russia’s increasingly vicious attacks on Ukrainian cities. It is a dangerous and pivotal moment for the whole world — a battle between democratic states and authoritarian ones that Biden has been warning about since his inauguration.
“Six days ago, Russia’s Vladimir Putin sought to shake the foundations of the free world, thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways,” Biden said, noting Putin hadn’t counted on the resolve of the Ukrainian people. Nor the reaction of the world.
“He thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond. And he thought he could divide us here at home, in this chamber and this nation,” he said. “Putin was wrong. We were ready.”
He introduced the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova, who was in attendance as a guest of the first lady, to a sustained standing ovation from the lawmakers of both parties.
“Now is the hour, our moment of responsibility, our test of resolve and conscience, of history itself. It is in this moment that our character is formed, our purpose is found, our future is forged,” Biden said. “We will meet the test. To protect freedom and liberty, to expand fairness and opportunity. We will save democracy,” he said.
And he announced the U.S. would join other countries, including Canada, that have banned Russian flights over their airspace.
Generally, presidents don’t talk much about foreign policy in the most-watched speech they give every year. Especially not when there are midterm elections to win. But the overwhelming revulsion that the American public has shared with the world over the Russian attack — and, as important, the revulsion shared across the political aisle — makes it a point of the unity Biden has always promised. During the sections of his speech on Ukraine, virtually all Republicans joined in the frequent standing ovations to signal that unity.
Many of those in attendance at the speech wore blue and yellow to honour Ukraine, or waved small Ukrainian flags. The co-ordination Biden has helped lead in the international community in responding alongside other democracies is a clear success he pointed to, even with horrific images and updates rolling in alongside the inspiring example of Ukraine’s resistance.
In that context — the life and death of the people and state of Ukraine at stake, the entire rules-based order of the globe under active attack — it seems almost petty to consider the electoral stakes of Biden’s talk. But politically, those stakes are existentially high for Biden’s presidency. If his party loses control of Congress in the fall, his ability to accomplish much more of anything will be severely constrained.
Biden can claim a lot of successes in his first year in office, from keeping money in people’s pockets through the pandemic’s surges to his vaccine distribution efforts, and passing a massive infrastructure bill that he spoke of at length Tuesday night. Employment is high, wages are up, the stock market remains strong, Omicron is receding. Mask mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions are being lifted (the majority of the elected officials in the chamber during Biden’s address were unmasked).
Indeed, in his speech, Biden recited the ritual incantation, “The state of our union is strong,” adding, “because you, the American people, are strong.”
But the American people haven’t been feeling that way.
To get from the White House to the Capitol to deliver the speech, Biden’s motorcade would drive past Freedom Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue, where the words of one-time president Woodrow Wilson are inscribed in the stone: “The city of Washington is in some respects self-contained, and it is easy there to forget what the rest of the United States is thinking about.”
What the rest of the United States in thinking about, according to pollsters, is inflation — higher than at any point since the 1980s, and which Russia’s war in Ukraine might drive higher. And they are thinking about crime, with a murder rate in many cities rising through Biden’s early presidency. And they are thinking that they are fed up with the pandemic.
And that they don’t support the president. According to the FiveThirtyEight polling average, only 41 per cent of Americans approve of Biden’s performance. That’s only slightly higher than Donald Trump’s rating at this point in his presidency, and lower than any other president before them.
Biden’s address tried not just to tout accomplishments he feels are overlooked, but also to tell Americans he understands what they are going through and has plans to help. Biden announced releases from oil reserves to ease expected inflation, and urged Congress to pass measures to make life more affordable — including a competitiveness bill targeting China, reduced prices for insulin and prescription drugs, an increase in the minimum wage to $15 and an increase in the grants available to poor students. He touched on crime measures intended to cut gun violence, and pushed again on green energy. And he continued to beat the drum on jobs, including a made-in-America agenda that may put Canadians on edge.
“Lower your costs, not your wages. Folks. That means make more cars and semiconductors in America. More infrastructure and innovation in America. More goods moving faster and cheaper in America. More jobs where you can earn a good living in America. Instead of relying on foreign supply chains, let’s make it in America,” Biden said. And those in attendance stood and chanted “U-S-A” for some time.
Many — most — of these measures are popular, according to pollsters. But Biden is not. Before Russia’s war prompted a last-minute rewrite to emphasize the vivid threat to global peace and security, Biden’s team reportedly hoped this address could serve to reset the course of his presidency by framing the considerable successes he’s had even amid the crises and launching a new series of popular measures just as the pandemic is receding. But to accomplish anything out of that, he’ll need some measure of unity, at least within his own party, to get things through Congress.
To that end, he announced what he called a “unity agenda” that includes measures to deal with the opioid crisis, support veterans, offer better mental health support and cure cancer.
In a section of the speech on the politicization of COVID, he made a direct appeal: “Let’s stop seeing each other as enemies, and start seeing each other for who we really are: fellow Americans.” However, even during the speech, there were signs of what he is up against. When he spoke of border security, one Republican representative started chanting, “Build the wall!” When he began to talk solemnly about his son Beau’s death from cancer possibly stemming from his military service, a Republican shouted that he was responsible for American soldiers’ deaths in the Afghanistan withdrawal.
Biden came into office promising, above all else, unity. In response to a global crisis, he managed to help unify the partners of NATO and the world’s major democratic countries. Now the challenge is to accomplish the same task in his own country, or at least in his own party. No single speech is going to get that done.
Edward Keenan is the Star’s Washington Bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Reach him via email: email@example.com